Paul Newman (January 26, 1925 – 2008)
I might not feel compelled to write something about Paul Newman’s intermittent career behind the camera if it weren’t for Rachel, Rachel (1968), a criminally neglected “Sixties movie” that is also Newman’s first and finest as director. I saw it in the theater all those years ago and never forgot it. And, when it finally came out on DVD, I bought it and watched it twice straight through. It’s that good.
Newman’s second feature was Sometimes a Great Notion (1970, based on the Ken Kesey novel), which is only one of two movies Newman both directed and starred in. There are terrific scenes in that film, but overall it’s the kind of highly competent but mostly uninspired work that you would expect from a director such as Stuart Rosenberg, who – not coincidentally, I would imagine – directed Newman in Cool Hand Luke and other studio features. Harry & Son (1984) – the second Paul Newman film in which he acted – is a likable mess. And his remaining three films are stage plays turned into movies starring Joanne Woodward, which one is tempted to assume were viewed as opportunities for husband Paul to spend time with wife Joanne and to remind the world what a great actress she can be.
If you need any reminders of Woodward’s talent, you couldn’t find a better place to start than Rachel, Rachel, which also stars Woodward as Rachel Cameron, a “spinster” schoolteacher who appears utterly incapable of asserting herself emotionally or of reaching for any kind of life she wants. This has the sound of standard fare, but not the way Newman directs it (from a script by Stewart Stern based on the novel by Margaret Laurence). And I think Newman entitled the film Rachel, Rachel because half the time his camera is on Joanne Woodward and the other half it’s inside her character’s head, where a goodly amount of rich fantasizing takes place. And since this is the Sixties, after all, Rachel (both of her) ends up going on a fairly wild ride.
The movie stands on its own – Rachel, Rachel is one of the finest and most emblematic American films of the 1960s – but it is also a love letter par excellence from husband to wife. Newman can’t take his eyes off Woodward and we can’t either. Comparisons are invidious, but other performances by American actresses from the same period that I liked as much although not more include Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Barbara Loden in Wanda (1970), and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974).